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May 30, 10:21 AM EDT

Head of Egypt's journalists union detained over bail


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AP Photo/Amr Nabil

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CAIRO (AP) -- The head of Egypt's journalists union and two of its board members have been questioned by prosecutors over allegations that they spread false news and harbored journalists wanted by authorities, one of the three and their lawyer said on Monday.

They were ordered released on a 10,000-pound ($1,000) bail each, but they refused to pay and were consequently detained at a police station in central Cairo, board member Khaled el-Balshy and defense lawyer Sayed Abu Zeid told The Associated Press.

"We refused to pay because the accusations are related to publishing news and that should not involve imprisonment or bail," said el-Balshy.

The move against the three came less than a month after the head of the union, Yahya Qalash, called for the interior minister's resignation and a presidential apology over an alleged police raid to snatch two journalists wanted for allegedly inciting protests and who had taken refuge inside the union building in downtown Cairo.

Amnesty International condemned the legal proceedings against the three, describing the accusations they face as a "dangerous escalation" and part of the government's "draconian" crackdown on freedom of expression.

Authorities deny the allegation that police forcibly entered the building, saying they had an arrest warrant and coordinated in advance with union board members. Qalash, the union's head, later sought to ease the tense standoff with the government, dropping his demand for a presidential apology and not repeating his demand for the minister to step down.

President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi's government has significantly curbed many of the freedoms Egyptians won following the country's 2011 popular uprising, defending a 2013 law that effectively bans street protests and repeatedly stating that Egypt's human rights record must not be judged by Western standards.

Pro-government media routinely defames critics and brands any opposition as either treason or motived by clandestine support for the now-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group from which Mohammed Morsi, the Islamist president el-Sissi ousted in 2013, hails.

On Monday, el-Sissi again showed a desire to extend government influence to the media and entertainment industry.

He spoke at an inauguration ceremony for a new housing project in Cairo for low-income Egyptians. The project is a substitute model for the shanty towns that ring the Egyptian capital and are often depicted in movies as violent, crime infested and morally degenerate areas.

"The claim through movies that their residents are different is inappropriate, paints a negative picture and divides society," he said. "Those people are well bred and have morals and values ... We should not allow them (the movies) and they should not be produced."

It was not clear how the president's directive would be implemented since film-making is in the hands of private production companies. Egypt has a state censor who must approve the script of any new movie before it is shot, although cases where the censor rejected a script are rare.

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